NEW YORK — It took just four paragraphs in a regional newspaper to ignite an abortion media conflagration that, within two weeks, engulfed President Joe Biden, the partisan press and some of the nation’s major news agencies.
At the center of it all: a 10-year-old rape victim, of unknown identity, suddenly thrown into a political fight over one of the country’s most contentious issues.
The Wall Street Journal and Washington Post both clarified or corrected stories after an Ohio man was charged Wednesday with raping the girl, who flew to Indiana for an abortion on last month.
The case first came to light in a July 1 article in The Indianapolis Star about patients traveling to Indiana for abortion services due to more restrictive laws in neighboring states following the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade. The play began with an anecdote about an Indianapolis doctor asked by a colleague from Ohio to help the young girl, who had passed the stage of pregnancy where she could obtain a legal abortion in Ohio.
The story was seized upon by Biden at a July 8 press conference to announce an executive order to protect access to abortion services.
“A 10-year-old child should be forced to give birth to a rapist’s child? Biden asked. “I can’t imagine anything more extreme.”
By then, there were already questions being raised about the Star’s story, including in a series of tweets and an July 8 article in PJ Media by conservative columnist Megan Fox, under the headline ‘Viral’ pregnant 10-year-old rape victim ‘Abortion Horror’. story deserves closer examination.
Fox questioned why the only apparent source for the girl’s story was Indiana doctor Caitlan Bernard and whether she was credible because she performs abortions and protested restrictions on the service .
Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler wrote about the issues last Saturday, noting that an abortion on a 10-year-old girl is rare.
“This is a very difficult story to verify,” Kessler wrote. “Bernard is registered, but obtaining documents or other confirmations is virtually impossible without details identifying the locality where the rape took place.”
The Star’s story did not identify the Ohio doctor who called Bernard. The newspaper’s editor, Bro Krift, did not discuss the steps taken by the newspaper to corroborate Bernard’s story and declined to comment to The Associated Press on Thursday.
A source named as Bernard is a good start, said Kathleen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin. If the Star had other sources, it might not have wanted to provide them at the risk of identifying the victim, she said.
Indiana Attorney General, Republican Todd Rokita, said Thursday his office is investigating whether Bernard violated medical confidentiality laws by speaking to the Star about the victim, or failed to inform authorities of a suspicion of child abuse. Indianapolis District Attorney, Democrat Ryan Mears, said his office had sole authority to pursue such charges and Bernard was being “intimidated and bullied.”
Bernard’s attorney released a statement Thursday that the doctor provided appropriate treatment and did not violate any patient confidentiality laws or other rules. Bernard is also considering legal action against “those who smeared my client”, including Rokita.
Bernard reported a medical abortion on June 30 for a 10-year-old patient to the state health department on July 2, within the three days required by state law for a girl under 16, according to the report obtained by The Indianapolis Star and WXIN-TV of Indianapolis.
In conservative media circles, questions raised about the supply quickly turned into claims that the story was a lie.
“The idea of American politicians trying to exploit a story like this and make up a story like this in order to advance their own sick agenda tells you that they are not serious about the issue. “, said Charlie Hurt, analyst of Fox News. Tuesday.
The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, in an op-ed Tuesday, called it “an abortion story too good to be confirmed.” The Journal wrote that “all sorts of whimsical stories travel far on social media these days, but you don’t expect them to get an audience in the White House.”
Under the heading “Correcting Record on Rape Case” on Thursday, the Journal wrote that “it appears President Biden was accurate.”
“The country must find a rough consensus on abortion now that it has returned to the states and the political process,” the Journal writes. “One way to help is to ensure that the stories about abortion on either side of the debate can be easily confirmed. Passions are running high enough already.
Kessler attached a note to his updated column with the arrest, and said it was a test case of whether reporters should rely on one source for a hard-hitting story.
It faced intense heat online, both because of its original story and its explanations. U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York tweeted that “this column is horrible.” Waiting for confirmation from law enforcement is questionable when many women do not report rape to authorities, she said.
“The intent of the article was to highlight the need for careful reporting in a time when information travels rapidly,” said Washington Post spokeswoman Shani George.
PJ Media’s Fox said reporters should always question news stories and do their own research because media hoaxes are so prevalent today.
“I would ask all the questions I asked in my original report again,” she told the AP.
PJ Media quickly pivoted to an article on Thursday titled, “Illegal Alien Arrested for Rape of 10-Year-Old Abortion Patient, But Questions Remain.”
A Columbus police detective testified at a hearing Wednesday that there was no evidence the suspect was in the country legally. In court documents filed the same day, a prosecutor said the suspect was not a US citizen and was subject to deportation. The Associated Press is not identifying the suspect because there are questions about whether his reported name was real and whether he is a relative of the girl involved.
The incident shows how the political pundit often outpaces journalism, and reporters are caught responding to the pundit, said Culver from Wisconsin.
“The bigger issue here is that it looks like a 10-year-old child was sexually abused,” she said, “and that’s a tragedy.”
Associated Press reporters Kantele Franko, Julie Carr Smyth and Andrew Welsh-Huggins in Columbus, Ohio, and Tom Davies in Indianapolis, Indiana, contributed to this report.